David Willetts has been accused of risking “barbarians at the gate” after appointing the chief executive of a US-owned for-profit provider to the board of England’s funding council.
The universities and science minister appointed Peter Houillon, chief executive of Kaplan UK and Ireland, to the Higher Education Funding Council for England board earlier this month. Critics of the appointment accuse Mr Willetts of favouring the for-profit sector above the non-profit private sector.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of private, non-profit Regent’s University London, was also interviewed for the post. Unlike Kaplan UK, Regent’s has university status and degree awarding powers.
In the US, a 2012 Senate report on for-profit higher education said Kaplan’s US arm “exhibited some of the most serious problems of any company examined by the committee”, but added that the firm had made “significant reforms”.
Kaplan derived 88 per cent of its US revenue from federal education funds in 2010, the report found, while allocating 13.5 per cent of 2009 revenue to profit.
Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said private non-profit Buckingham and Regent’s had been “setting the pace for 40 years – we are the people who have been changing things”.
He added: “The for-profits are a completely different exercise…I am very sceptical about them. Their motive is not education for its own sake, it’s profit.”
He said there was a question as to whether the Kaplan appointment amounted to “barbarians at the gate”. He added: “What is the purpose of having a for-profit there? What’s [Kaplan] got to do with the Higher Education Funding Council, which is all about government funds for charitable institutions?”
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, which has an observer’s role on the Hefce board, said: “It is right that Hefce is engaged with the full breadth of the sector, but the decision to engage with for-profit providers has been taken before those providers have been brought under the umbrella of its regulation.”
Mr Houillon, who opted to answer questions via email rather than spoken interview, said: “The aim of policymakers is to ensure students are at the heart of our higher education system and that student choice drives changes as part of the increasing marketisation of HE.” He added that “all providers of HE regardless of their ownership structure should be subject to the same overarching regulatory framework”.
Asked if he would aim, in part at least, to give a voice to for-profit higher education, Mr Houillon said: “The board position, as advertised, mentioned an interest in representation from the alternative provider sector. As that is my background, yes, I will certainly represent the views and experiences of that sector while maintaining the necessary and appropriate broad view of the needs of the HE sector as a whole.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the appointment had been made in accordance with the Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Bodies.